Exam-style Questions: Secularisation

  1. "Whether the function of religion in society is the promotion of social harmony or social conflict is, as yet, an unresolved debate."

    Explain and evaluate this statement with reference to sociological theories and studies.

    (Marks available: 20)


    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 1

    Religion is found in all societies. Consequently, sociologists have believed that religion must serve some social purpose. Whether that purpose is to preserve and legitimate existing societies, or to agitate for social improvements and a change in society, has been the focus of a long-running debate.


    Both Marx and Durkheim argued that religion served to maintain the existing ''status quo'' in any given society. Both argue that religion provides an explanation of why society is arranged the way that it is and thus religion serves to justify exiting social conditions.

    For Durkheim, religion performs the necessary function of providing social cohesion and for him the most important attribute of religion is what it does. Consequently, Durkheim would also allow nationalism or indeed Marxism as a religion. So, to an extent, Durkheim allowed that religion itself could change so as to better achieve its function of justifying existing social relationships - for example, Marxism could replace Christianity as an ideology that explained and legitimated existing society.

    Marx had a different conception of what a religion is. For him, a religion had to be based on the belief in a deity, and he believed this was an absurd story that hid the truth from people. Religion was 'opium' it dulled pain and promised relief. However, not all Marxists claim that religion is conservative - for example, Gramsci and Maduro.

    Weber argued that religion could drive social change, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued that there was an affinity between the ideas of Calvinism and the development of capitalism in Western Europe. Weber was not saying that religion always causes change, but that it could bring about change. This leads to the most tenable position, which is best described as the ''it depends'' approach.

    The ''it depends'' approach considers factors that can affect what impact religion has within a given society at a particular time - for instance, charismatic leaders, the beliefs and practices, whether there are alternative avenues to change, etc.

    There will be differences in affect between societies and within a society at different periods of time. So religion can be conservative (the Roman Catholic church in Europe), it can be revolutionary (the Roman Catholic church in South America) and it can be reactionary (Islamic and Christian fundamentalism).


    This is not really an unresolved debate. What is clear is that we don't have to accept that religion either promotes harmony or conflict. Evidence shows that religion can both promote harmony and encourage social conflict. We need to pay attention to the particular circumstances in which religion acts in one way or the other.

    (Marks available: 20)

  2. "In modern society, religious beliefs and religious behaviour are changing rather than declining."

    Assess the arguments and evidence for and against this view.

    (Marks available: 20)


    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 2


    Clearly the essay requires a consideration of the secularisation debate. Essentially this argument cannot be resolved because of the lack of clarity or agreement as to how secularisation can be defined or measured, consequently it is difficult to assess whether belief is declining.

    What can be done is to outline the basis for some of the disagreements. Nevertheless, it is clear to some extent that religious behaviour has changed, in some societies, during the second part of the last century.


    The essay assumes that the term 'modern society' refers to societies that are based upon the concept of modernity - that is societies governed on principles of rationalism, objectivity and science.


    The belief that religious belief has declined in modern societies is based on a number of assumptions...

    • That modern societies were more religious in the past.
    • That religion and science are incompatible.
    • That the process of secularisation is irreversible.

    These assumptions are not really tested because it is assumed that they are true.

    There are problems in trying to measure secularisation:

    • There are different types of measurement-individual, institutional and societal.
    • The same evidence/observation can be used to both prove and disprove secularisation.
    • Even the concept 'religion' is problematic. Are we interested in what religion does or what people believe?
    • There is a problem with validity. Are researchers measuring religiosity or something else?

    Overall, examining belief is always going to be difficult because it is not an empirical phenomena.


    At least behaviour can be observed and some things seem obvious but we need to be clear that it is difficult make inferences about belief from behaviour.

    Fewer people attend churches in Britain and other European societies. But the USA has high levels of attendance and even in Britain some religions have witnessed growth in membership - for example, Moslems. However, as Davie points out people can believe but not belong and they could also belong but not believe.

    Worldwide there has been a growth in fundamentalism, which can be seen as a reaction against modernity, and a return to basic beliefs and an acceptance that Holy books really are the word of God. More generally many people are sceptical about the values of science.


    The only conclusion that this is a debate that cannot be resolved until there is a basic agreement as to what the term 'secularisation' means and agreement as to how it can be measured.

    At present, all we can say is that religion seems far more resilient than was at first thought by sociologists such as Weber and Marx and that several sociologists argue that religion is ever-present in human society.

    (Marks available: 20)